Maya Angelou Voice of a Generation by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

As a young black girl growing up in the cotton-farming areas of Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s, Maya Angelou learned about racism, poverty and abuse firsthand. If you had told the young child she would one day grow up to be a novelist, poet, dramatist and composer, among other things, she probably would have laughed.

“Now she sings the songs the Creator gave to her when the river and the tree and the stone were one.”
— Bill Clinton

Such was the world of Maya Angelou.  It was a world of rising up from the ashes and daring to live the best life anyway.

"I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition--about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive,"  she said.

When Maya found out Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated she didn't speak or leave her New York apartment for two weeks.  Then she remembered King preached forgiveness.

Maya had worked with King in the 1960s as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Not long after his death she began writing "I Know Why The Caged

She said the book saved her life.  As she penned it she thought about King and his extraordinary capacity to forgive people.  She began to forgive herself and other people.  What King really offered the world according to Maya was hope--and she had to reach deep to find it in herself.        

"People do only what they know, and when they know better, they do better," she said. Forgiveness is a mighty gift."

Maya described ignorance as inherited, saying, sometimes it's just in the air. "We have to work hard to scrape it off."  And she spent her life scraping it off in her way.

She was the second poet in history to be present at a presidential inauguration when she read her work at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.  Maya became the first African-American and first woman inaugural poet that chilly January day when she read her five minute poem "On the Pulse of Morning."  She wrote the piece for Bill Clinton.     

"I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of “On the Pulse of Morning” at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed," Clinton said.  "Now she sings the songs the Creator gave to her when the river and the tree and the stone were one."

Maya read another poem "Amazing Peace" at the 2005 George W. Bush White House Christmas tree lightingceremony and as a tribute to civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

"In the sequestered, most private heart of every American lives a burning desire to belong to a great country, to represent a noble-minded country where the mighty do not always crush the weak and the dream of a democracy is not in the sole possession of the strong," Maya said.

She died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 28, 2014 at age 86.

On Sept. 15, Swann Auction Galleries featured the art collection of Maya Angelou on the block.  

Maya Angelou

Lithograph; Elizabeth Catlett; Madonna; 1982; signed, titled and dated; 21 inches by 16 inches;  $8,750.

Watercolor and Pencil; Alonzo Adams; Phenomenal Woman; 1993; signed, titled, dated and engraved; 22 1/4 inches by 293/4 inches;  $10,000.

Hand-colored Silver Print; Jean Moutoussamy-Ashe; Maya Angelou;1993; 10 inches by 10 1/2 inches;  $17,500.

Welded Steel Sculpture; Melvin Edwards; 2011; signed and titled;10 inches by 7 inches;  $40,000.

Oil and Acrylic on Board; John Biggers; Kumasi Market; 1962; signed and dated; 34 inches by 60 inches;  $389,000.

Acrylic on Canvas; Painted, Dyed and Pieced Fabrics; Faith Ringgold; Maya's Quilt of Life; 1989; 73 inches by 73 inches;  $461,000.  


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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